There was a time not so long ago when one of the greatest three-point shooters in the history of the NBA was blacklisted in large part due to his political philosophy and association with the Nation of Islam. Times have changed and Craig Hodges is back in the Association, working with his former coach, Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers. Hodges has been working closely with players like Trevor Ariza. Improvements in Ariza’s game caught the eye of the Utah Jazz and a few other observers.
From ESPN’s Shelley Smith:
LOS ANGELES — He comes to the gym early for practice and always slips out just as the media is let in when it’s over, not because he’s shy — far from it — but because Craig Hodges says he doesn’t want to be the focus of what all the players he coaches are accomplishing.
“They do all the work,” he explains, “I just try to guide them.”
Hodges is a former sharpshooter who helped lead the Chicago Bulls to two NBA titles in the early 1990s and is the man that Lakers’ forward Trevor Ariza credits for his transition from being an injured athlete with no confidence in his jump shot, to the player who on Sunday had a playoff-high 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, including 3-for-4 from the 3-point line in the Lakers 113-100 victory over the Jazz.
“He helped me a whole lot when I was hurt,” Ariza said Monday. “We did a lot of work before practice, after practice, before games when I couldn’t play at all, he helped me a lot.”
Back in the day, Hodges was one of the best outside shooters in the league, joining Larry Bird as the only players in history (so far) to win three NBA 3-point shooting contests. After the Bulls won the title in 1992, Hodges wore a dashiki to the White House and gave President Bush a letter complaining about the treatment of minorities and the poor. Not long after that, he was cut from the Bulls and never got another tryout with another team, and believes to this day, that he was “blackballed” from the league for stirring things up, something Commissioner David Stern denies.
His former coach, Phil Jackson, quietly hired him as a special assistant in 2005 and Hodges began working with perimeter players who say they appreciate his work ethic and attention to mental detail.
He taught me to take the shots when they’re there,” Ariza said, “and not freezing up and going to the basket, which is what I was used to doing. He got me doing something that was uncomfortable to me, taking the shot when it was there, and now it’s comfortable for me.”
A year ago, Ariza was struggling to recover from a broken foot and saw just 10 minutes in the Western Conference Finals and 35 minutes against Boston in the Finals, scoring a total of 13 points. At the time, Hodges thought Ariza would be the Lakers’ “secret weapon” in the Finals, but Ariza was still experiencing foot pain and admits he didn’t believe in his jumper. Visualization and repetition are aspects of the game they’ve worked hard on this season.
“I think the biggest thing we did was get up shots,” he said. “So many guys have been slashers so often, they don’t get up shots and never see the ball go in, which is important in building your confidence, knowing you can do it, rather than slash and drive to the basket.”
Hodges said he has taught Ariza and other Lakers perimeter players a formula he honed from growing up playing hoops in the projects of Chicago.
“We didn’t have nets, or if we did they were metal,” he said. “So we had rims and when it would get to be twilight, you could only make out a line, so I worked on putting my ball over that line. I tell them now, pick a spot two inches inside the target (the basket) and then raise your target six inches. Worked for me.”
He has preaches the philosophy of “holding your finish,” meaning, making sure Ariza holds his follow through as nice and high as when he launched the shot. “Your arm should be in the same position as when you go up as when you come down. Your arm should not have moved.”
“I think about that all the time,” Ariza said.
Like Hodges, Ariza is always the first player shooting pregame and in practice, Hodges often challenges him to shooting contests.
“We pick five spots, and you’ve got to make five in a row before you move,” Hodges said. “And I don’t miss a lot of shots. And it makes him have to make them, too.”
Ariza says he wins more than loses, but admits that Hodges still has it as a shooter.
“He’s still real good, he still doesn’t miss,” he said. “If you beat him, you know you’re doing something right.”
Addendum: It appears as if the Lakers are making the most of the intellectual capital provided by old outsiders like Craig Hodges. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also in the employ of the Lakers and providing leadership to the young Andrew Bynum, perhaps the last act of redemption for the league will be the return of Kermit Washington. It’s the Association that needs the redemption at this point, not Washington. Washington has led a wonderful life of love and service since leaving the Association. He, like Hodges and Jabbar, has a wealthy of knowledge and experience that could be of tremendous value to any organization in the business in developing young millionaires. It is past time for the Association to mend this fence.